Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Sycophant in the Sycamore

Curious that Zacchaeus the sycophant (συκοφάντης) climbs a sycamore (συκομορεα) in the gospel narrative.  This illustrates the highly sophisticated nature of the gospel narrative.  The term used in Luke is συκοφαντέω and is usually translated "false accusation."  But the term comes from σῦκον (= 'fig') and  φαίνειν (= 'to show' 'to reveal').  Liddell says it was:

used of denouncers of the attempted export of figs from Athens, acc. to Ister 35, Plu. Sol.24, 2.523b; orig. of citizens entrusted with the collection of figs as part of the public revenues of Athens and the denouncing of tax-evaders, acc. to Philomnest.1; of denouncers of figs which had been stolen from the sacred fig-trees during a famine and had become cheap, the famine having passed, Sch.Ar.Pl.31, cf. Fest. p.393 L.

What is curious however is that the sycamore tree is in fact a fig tree.  The ficus sycomorus is the very same tree. It is a commonly cultivated tree especially popular in the Near East where figs are harvested.

This is the very same tree which appears on the back of the throne of St Mark in Venice but originally the episcopal chair of Alexandria from a very early period.  The tree is represented there as the tree of life, a role that it had in the ancient Egyptian religion:

The Ancient Egyptians cultivated this species "almost exclusively", according to Zohary and Hopf. Remains of Ficus sycomorus begin to appear in predynastic levels and in quantity from the start of the third millennium BCE. It was the ancient Egyptian Tree of Life. Zohary and Hopf note that "the fruit and the timber, and sometimes even the twigs, are richly represented in the tombs of the Egyptian Early, Middle and Late Kingdoms. In numerous cases the parched sycons bear characteristic gashing marks indicating that this art, which induces ripening, was practice in Egypt in ancient times."

Although this species of fig requires the presence of the symbiotic wasp Ceratosolen arabicus to reproduce sexually, and this insect is extinct in Egypt, Zohay and Hopf have no doubt that Egypt was "the principal area of sycamore fig development." Some of the caskets of mummies in Egypt are made from the wood of this tree. In tropical areas where the wasp is common, complex mini-ecosystems involving the wasp, nematodes, other parasitic wasps, and various larger predators revolve around the life cycle of the fig. The trees' random production of fruit in such environments assures its constant attendance by the insects and animals which form this ecosystem.

The point of course is that while most people simply believe that things happen in the gospel narrative because 'that's the way it happened' in history, this can't properly explain the coincidence that Zacchaeus the 'sycophant' is depicted as climbing a 'sycamore' tree.  There is something deeply significant here.  The name Zacchaeus (= zakkai) means pure.  It is unlikely to be the disciple's real name.

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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